The XFL announced not only its team directors of player personnel yesterday (after Pro Football Network’s Aaron Wilson had them Wednesday night), but also announced offensive and defensive coordinators for most squads. This comes as the league still has not announced what eight cities they’ll be playing in for 2023, which has made for some awkward phrasing in announcements such as these.
With several head coaches lacking professional or even college coaching experience, the prevailing thought was they’d need to buttress their staffs with strong coordinators and assistants. Most have done that. Other position coaches will likely be announced at a later date; the XFL needed make these hires public with their upcoming appearances at player showcases beginning next week.
Here are my rankings, from strongest to weakest, of the XFL 2023 Head Coach/Offensive Coordinator/Defensive Coordinator/DPP combinations:
1. Jim Haslett/June Jones/Ron Zook/Randy Mueller
For XFL fans, the most notable hire here is Jones as offensive coordinator. He was head coach in 2020 when he led the Houston Roughnecks to a 5-0 record and helped catapult QB P.J. Walker back into the NFL. Mueller was his director of player personnel in Houston, so he knows the kind of player Jones requires to excel at his run-and-shoot offense. Haslett, a defensive coach, would be wise to sit back and let Jones do his thing offensively.
Haslett himself is a long-tenured NFL coach, with over a dozen years as defensive coordinator and several as a head coach. While many of the directors of player personnel hired by the XFL have extensive NFL front office backgrounds, Mueller is the only one to have been at the top of the chain as general manager. He was GM of the New Orleans Saints from 2000-2001, overlapping Haslett’s time as head coach there, as well as Zook’s stint as defensive coordinator. Mueller was also GM of the Salt Lake Stallions of the AAF while Zook was special teams coordinator and defensive backs coach.
Zook has been a defensive coordinator and special teams coordinator at the NFL level, and spent 10 years as a college head coach at Florida and Illinois. These four have crossed over into many different leagues during their coaching tenures, including college, NFL, UFL, XFL, AAF, USFL (the original), CFL and TSL.
2. Bob Stoops/Jonathan Hayes/Jay Hayes/Rick Mueller
Stoops was the biggest name of the XFL’s 2020 class of head coaches, but it didn’t end up meaning much on the field when he guided Dallas to a 2-3 record. Yet he’s the only head coach from that season to return to lead a team in 2023, expected once again to be in Dallas. This time, he brings with him former St. Louis Battlehawks head coach Jonathan Hayes to lead his offense. Hayes was revered by XFL fans for his leadership in guiding St. Louis to a 3-2 record. With Stoops being a defensive coach, the presumption is Hayes will call plays for the first time in his long career. Hayes was on Stoops’s first staff at Oklahoma as tight ends and special teams coach, working under him for four years.
Jonathan’s brother Jay was his defensive coordinator in St. Louis and will take on the same responsibilities under Stoops. St. Louis surrendered the fewest points per game and the second-fewest yards per game in 2020. While Jonathan spent years as a tight ends coach with the Cincinnati Bengals, Jay was a defensive line coach there. Both have over a decade of NFL coaching experience.
The family affair continues with Rick Mueller, brother of Randy Mueller, who will head the personnel department. Rick has held numerous NFL front office jobs including director of college scouting, director of player personnel, and director of pro personnel. He has experience scouting both college and pro leagues and was general manager of the UFL’s Omaha Nighthawks. Mueller comes to the XFL from Coastal Carolina, where he had been the executive director of player personnel since 2018.
3. Wade Phillips/A.J. Smith/Brian Stewart/Marc Lillibridge
Expected to be the Houston contingent, Phillips tilts the balance quite significantly here to get this group to the number three spot. He is the white whale of secondary football leagues, and credit to the XFL for being able to reel him in. He’s the kind of credibility-builder the league needed. His offensive coordinator, Smith, is a student of the Air Raid-style offense having studied under Hal Mumme and June Jones – he was Jones’s wide receivers coach with the Roughnecks in 2020, helping to mold Cam Phillips into one of the league’s best receivers.
All three coaches have ties to Houston: Phillips began his career at the University of Houston as a graduate assistant in 1969, then returned to coach the Houston Oilers’ defensive line from 1976-1980, finally serving as Houston Texans defensive coordinator (2011-2013) and interim head coach (2013). Smith coached with the Roughnecks and defensive coordinator Stewart was the Texans’ assistant defensive backs coach in 2002-2003 and later the University of Houston defensive coordinator in 2010-2011.
Stewart has a previous relationship with Phillips, having coached under him with the Dallas Cowboys. Stewart was the team’s defensive coordinator from 2007-2008 while Phillips was the head coach. Stewart’s stops have taken him to five different NFL teams and ten different colleges in a career that has spanned nearly 30 years. Most recently, he was the defensive coordinator at the University of Maryland.
Lillibridge spent five years in the NFL as a linebacker before moving into the front office. He rose to the position of assistant director of pro personnel with the Green Bay Packers and later was a pro scout for the Kansas City Chiefs. Since leaving those posts in the mid-2000s, Lillibridge has written for Bleacher Report, been an on-air radio personality, a certified player agent, a director of business development for Nikco Sports, and an on-field coach for Washington University in St. Louis. It will be valuable to both the team, and perhaps the league, to have someone with the vast background of Lillibridge, who has been on both sides of the negotiating table as an executive and an agent.
4. Hines Ward/Jaime Elizondo/Jim Herrmann/Will Lewis
The gap between four and five is very close. Ward has scant few years as a coach, but both his coordinators are experienced and return from XFL 2020. Ward’s personality and leadership skills should acquit himself well as head coach, and his 14-year playing career will endear him to players. Naturally, the in-game adjustments and situational decision-making will need to be honed.
That’s where having two experienced coordinators comes into play. Despite their 1-4 record, Elizondo guided the Tampa Bay Vipers as offensive coordinator to the most yards per game and the most rushing yards per game in the league over the five-week season. Elizondo’s 2021 stint as head coach of the CFL Edmonton Elks led to a disastrous 3-11 record, resulting in a complete housecleaning of both the coaching staff and front office staff after the season. However, he has had success as offensive coordinator up north, most notably with the Ottawa Redblacks in 2016 when they captured the Grey Cup.
Herrmann was defensive coordinator of the New York Guardians in 2020. They allowed the second-fewest points per game in the league. Herrmann spent eight years as defensive coordinator at the University of Michigan before jumping to the NFL, where he was a linebackers coach for three teams over 11 seasons. There doesn’t appear to be any direct ties among these three particular coaches.
Lewis is another former Houston Roughneck back for a second go-round: He was assistant director of personnel under Randy Mueller in 2020. He played professionally for nine years in the 80s in the NFL, USFL and CFL. He also served as a coach in both the pros and college before moving into scouting. Lewis was director of pro personnel for the Seattle Seahawks for ten years, then vice president of football operations for another three. He moved to Kansas City as the director of pro scouting for the Chiefs for four years. After a year off, Lewis resurfaced in the AAF as GM of the Memphis Express in 2019.
5. Reggie Barlow/Fred Kaiss/Gregg Williams/Von Hutchins
I was tempted to place this group at number four based on the head coaching experience of Barlow and the history of Williams in the NFL. But Barlow’s head coaching was at the FCS and Division II level and Williams comes with a lot of baggage. After an eight-year NFL career, Barlow spent just two years as an assistant before being thrust into the head coaching role at Alabama State, his alma mater. He spent eight years there with an overall record of 49-42 including three first-place finishes and a Black College National title. He moved on to Virginia State, leading that program for five years, accumulating another Black College National title.
Kaiss also has a background coaching at HBCU schools, with stops at Hampton (OC/RB coach, ’01-05), Tennessee State (OC/RB, ’05-09), Alabama State (OC/RB, ’10-14), and Alcorn State (OC, ’14-17). Kaiss has most recently coached at the high school level. He was Barlow’s offensive coordinator while at Alabama State. Williams’s NFL coaching tenure stretched over 30 years, with most of it as defensive coordinator. His defenses are known for their aggressive playing style. He was also the head coach of the Buffalo Bills for three seasons. Williams was defensive coordinator of the New Orleans Saints while XFL senior director of football operations Jim Monos was in the Big Easy as a scout. When last seen coaching in the NFL, Williams became the butt of jokes in 2020 for calling a blitz on a Hail Mary attempt by the Raiders; the Hail Mary ended up succeeding and cost the Jets their first win of the season. He was also mired in the Bountygate scandal in the late 2000s. If nothing else, Williams will provide the kind of sideline character XFL cameras and microphones will be seeking.
As director of player personnel, Hutchins comes with a leaner resume than some of his peers. He served as Raiders pro scout from 2012-2016 and assistant director of pro scouting from 2016-2019. For the last three years, he has served as an NFLPA Bowl scout. His knowledge of the players that would get invited to a third-tier college all-star game could come in handy with the type of players the XFL will be recruiting this summer.
6. Terrell Buckley/Robert Ford/Tony Carter/Larry Lee
Buckley, the leader of the presumed Orlando franchise, went off the beaten path with some of his hires. After a 13-year NFL career, Buckley entered the coaching ranks at Florida State, where he played in college. He performed various roles on staff for five years before moving on to become cornerbacks coach at Akron (’12-13), Louisville (’14-15), Mississippi State (’16-19) and Ole Miss (’20-21). Ford spent a few years with the Miami Dolphins as wide receivers coach at the same time Buckley was starring there in the defensive backfield.
Ford brings three Super Bowl rings with him from his time as tight ends coach of the Dallas Cowboys in the early 90s. All told, he spent 14 years coaching in the NFL and 15 years in the college ranks, most recently in 2011 as receivers coach at Texas Southern. Ford returns to the pro coaching ranks at 70 years old. The defense will be led by Carter, a former defensive back who played for six NFL teams over seven seasons. Carter interned as a coach with the Raiders in 2018, then led Jacksonville University’s cornerbacks the following year. He returned to the NFL in 2020 as a defensive assistant for the Detroit Lions before moving back to college in 2021 with Southern Illinois as their cornerbacks coach. Carter also played at FSU, and was there while Buckley was an assistant.
Lee played eight years as a center in the NFL. He spent nine years in the front office of the Lions reaching as high as vice president of football operations. Lately, he has worked for the Fritz Pollard Alliance, whose mission is to “champion diversity in the National Football League.”
7. Anthony Becht/Bruce Gradkowski/Donnie Abraham/Dave Boller
Of all the head coaches selected to lead XFL teams in 2023, Becht was the one with the least experience and the expectation was that he’d surround himself with more seasoned assistants. At least at the coordinator level, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Becht played 11 years in the NFL as a tight end after being a first-round pick in 2000. Becht served as tight ends coach of the San Diego Fleet of the AAF in 2019. That’s the extent of his coaching curricula vitae. He did assist at the NFLPA Bowl this past winter and runs his own football camps. That counts for something.
Gradkowski was an NFL quarterback for 10 years, a teammate of Becht’s in Tampa Bay in 2006 and 2007. Since hanging up his cleats after the 2016 season, Gradkowski has coached at the high school level and in January was hired as a head coach at St. Francis de Sales High School in Ohio. Abraham played three seasons alongside Becht with the New York Jets and like Gradkowski, has done some high school coaching. Abraham has been head coach, defensive coordinator, and defensive backs coach at that level. His pro coaching has taken place in the AFL and AAF, both as defensive backs coach. He also spent a season as defensive backs coach at the University of Illinois.
The strength of this delegation is Boller. He was just hired in March as the player personnel assistant at Arizona State, so he was brought back to the XFL only recently. Boller served under Daryl Johnston in the Dallas Renegades’ front office in 2020. He was the GM of the Fleet in 2019, working with Becht there. His NFL travels included stopovers with the Eagles, Jets, Rams, and Bucs as a scout (he was with Tampa when they drafted Abraham). He was also the assistant director of pro personnel for the Lions from 2007-2009.
NR. Rod Woodson/TBA/TBA/Joey Clinkscales
Given that the coordinator positions have curiously not been filled on Woodson’s staff, I felt it unfair to rank them. Woodson himself is a member of both the College Football and Pro Football Halls of Fame following a 17-year NFL career. He has been an NFL assistant coach for six years, last on staff in 2017. Clinkscales returns to the XFL after being the director of player personnel for the LA Wildcats in 2020. His career as an executive is much more notable than his footnote of a playing career. Clinkscales rose to director of college scouting and vice president of college scouting with the Jets, then moved onto the Raiders as director of player personnel, where he stayed for seven years. Clinkscales was once a hot name when general manager spots came open.